Household roles have changed a lot since LIFE’s original run as a magazine, from 1936 to 1972. In April 2023 the Pew Research Center released a study which showed that in an increasing number of marriages, women earn about the same or more than their husbands, and the number of households in which the female is the primary earner has tripled over the last 50 years.

But despite their increased earning power, women are still more likely to carry the heavier burden when it comes to parenting. That context is all worth keeping in mind when considering a photo essay that ran the July 16, 1956 issue of LIFE. The story followed around a father who—brace yourself—had to take care of his four children by himself for an entire weekend while his wife was away.

The photo essay may have been built around a now-outdated assumption about the father’s role in the household, but it at least recognized the value of the unpaid labor that mothers have done for ages. The lighthearted essay by LIFE photographer Joe Scherschel showed how much dad struggled when he had to take over the work his wife had been doing.

The dad in question was Joe Gordon, a 33-year-old architect in Dallas. His four kids included Laura Lea (9 years old), Spencer (3), and a pair of two-month-old twin boys. Joe was on his own for the weekend because his wife had gone to her parents in Tulsa for some much-needed rest.

As the pictures show, Joe had to face the usual mayhem of parenting—crying children, diaper changes, early wake-ups, a sink full of dishes, and the inexplicable random crisis (why is Spencer playing with nails in the hallway?) The photos feel like they could be stills from a 1950s sitcom.

And at the end of this episode Joe learned the valuable lesson about domestic labor. He told LIFE after his weekend with the kids, “I feel like I’ve been on a 25-mile hike with a full pack…I wouldn’t change jobs on a bet.”

Jo Lea said goodbye to her husband, Joe Gordon, and her two-month-old twins, before a weekend away, 1956. LIFE followed Joe for a photo essay as he cared for his four children on his own.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, in the first hours of his weekend vigil, managing the simultaneous feeding of his two-month old twins, from a story on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, holding one of the twins while talking on the phone with mom, from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, with twins on his shoulders, is ready for sleep and heading for the bedroom; from a 1956 story on the adventures of a father of four children whose mother was away on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, changing one twin with the other on his shoulder, from a 1956 story on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, relaxing for a few minutes on the bed next to one twin that is sleeping, from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, trying to grab a bite to eat before bringing in the wash, and at the same time, trying to keep his two-month-old son quiet, from a photo essay on the adventures of a father with four children and their mother away on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, changing the twins, from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, with one of his twins during a five a.m. feeding, from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, holding his two babies, trying to get a drink, from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon clumsily lifting infant son Clark while attempting to change his diaper, from a 1956 photo essay on a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon surveying the lineup of dirty dishes and formula bottles (he finally did the dishes at 11 o’clock that night), from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Last-minute crisis for Joe Gordon, as son Spencer Gordon plays with a pile of nails he spilled on the hallway floor, from a 1956 photo essay on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon, preparing his daughter Laura Lea for Sunday school class, from a 1956 story on the adventures of a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Joe Gordon holding crown which came off his tooth while eating steak, from a 1956 story on a father taking over child care duties while his wife is on vacation.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Mother returns home at last after a weekend away, greeting her weary husband, Joe Gordon, and the kids, 1956.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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